Sailing the sea with a storm ravaging your ship and cannon fire raining down around you as you try and manoeuvre into position to board and capture a British ship might not sound like Assassin's Creed, but by adding something so far removed from the series Ubisoft have managed to make Assassin's Creed feel more exciting than it has done since Assassin's Creed 2.
Black Flag follows the story of Edward Kenway as he tries to acquire himself a fortune to give himself a good life back in England. You'll meet Assassins and Templars and in the modern day uncover more of the modern war between the two but honestly the new gameplay style is so addicting that for a large part of your time you probably won't care. You see sailing and fighting ships is incredibly fun. You can board a ship, kill its crew, plunder it for resources to repair and upgrade your ship, the Jackdaw, and then give it a crew of your own to send out on fleet missions which acquire you more money and items. The land based free running and assassinations are still here, in fact due to the lack of loading screens they are seamlessly integrated with the naval side of things, but it's the naval side that makes the game so exciting. Broadsides fill the air, wood splinters, waves soak the deck and your crew tries to cling on as wave after wave throws you around like a toy and all the while it's hard not to ask why they haven't done this sooner. The sea, your ship and crew are alive. Every detail has been covered and there is never a lack of things to do be it whaling, diving, island exploring or ship battles. You can even take down island forts which require you to take out cannon towers before diving off your ship, climbing through the rubble and fighting alongside your pirates to secure the inner areas and then the war room.
And all of these activities add to the game. Whaling or hunting give you materials to upgrade Edwards equipment, plundering wood or metal or cloth allows you to upgrade the Jackdaw and stealing rum and sugar provides you money needed to pay for these upgrades. Rescuing men adrift at sea adds to your crew which allows you to grow your fleet in order to do fleet missions. These fleet missions function largely as the Assassins missions in Assassins Creed Brotherhood did but they can also be done via a tablet through the companion app if you own one. Every bit of side content is interesting and enjoyable and they range from the familiar, like assassination contracts, to the new, such as the Moby Dick inspired whaling.
The mechanics for everything, from sword fighting, to shooting, to sailing, climbing and hunting have been refined. You can tag people using eagle vision, deal death more brutally thanks to dual wielding and climb with less frustration thanks to the improved controls and animations. Even the home building has been improved, this time you have an entire cove which can have shops, brothels and camps and of course this is just one facet of the upgrade system. Your Jackdaw must be attended to in order to take on higher level ships and convoys and Edward can fashion new armour to boost his health or new holsters to hold more pistols and facilitate longer periods between reloads.
All of these gameplay improvements are accompanied by the best graphical work the series has seen. The world is beautiful, with crisp, clear Caribbean seas, lush islands, white beaches, huge whales and varied, bustling towns with interesting architecture and plenty of standout scenery. Havana, Kingston and Nassau all have their own unique flavour and are far more interesting than any town seen in Assassin's Creed 3. Add to this the immensely detailed ships, and the fact you can customise the appearance of yours with new figureheads, hulls, wheels and sails and you have a game that impresses you every time you pick it up. It is truly breathtaking what they have achieved with this engine, and this isn't even the next gen version! There are occasional hiccups such as swords not hitting enemies but executions still being performed or small animals like rats disappearing but by and large on Xbox 360 there are very few major graphical hiccups and the framerate holds rock steady.
Perhaps more so than the graphics it's the sound that makes the world seem alive. Your crew bellow shanties, Edward barks orders, storms crash and roar and cannons sound like death incarnate. The sound effects used here are second to none and really add an air of authenticity to the game and make you feel like you are a pirate. Add into the mix a very Pirates of the Caribbean esque score and what you are left with is the perfect sound design for a pirate game. Fortunately all of this is backed by stellar voice acting from both the main cast and the less important NPCs. Every one in the game is voiced with conviction and is given a strong script to read off of. It's also refreshing to hear such an international range of voices in an Assassin's Creed game. Usually with these games you get one or two sets of cultures but here you get English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Native American, African, Welsh and God knows what else all thrown into the mix and it all adds further to idea that this world is a living one.
The multiplayer suite is also fantastic, with the normal experience returning but with brilliant new maps and characters and a surprisingly deep option to edit your own game modes. Sadly though there is no naval multiplayer and if you, like me , don't enjoy the multiplayer style of Assassin's Creed then this won't sway you.
Sadly, as all Assassin's Creed games since Brotherhood, it's the story that lets the game down. The first half of Edward's story is fantastic, it's coherent, features fantastic interactions with some of history's most famous pirates and is paced brilliantly. The second half of his story loses a little bit of focus as some major plot developments occur but by and large it is still handled well and honestly by this point I found myself more or less in love with Kenway. As for the present day side of the story, well of course it doesn't make sense. There are gaping plot holes, parts of the previous story are totally ignored and/or re-written and nothing is resolved in a consistent way. The writers of these stories at Ubisoft are simply incompetent. A schoolboy could write a far better story, I could write a far better story. If Ubisoft want to keep the modern day story then they need to fire their writers and make it make sense. I don't dislike the fact that they keep the modern story, I dislike that it is absolutely terrible.
To sum up then the gameplay and sound are fantastic, the graphics great but rough and the multiplayer well rounded. The historical story is great but the present day part is simply appalling. All things considered I would say this is the best Assassin's Creed game to date and a must buy for fans of the series.
Verdict: Highly enjoyable but greatly flawed, like most of the Assassin's Creed games it's great but should be much, much better.